Bear’s Den – Blue Hours
Indie Folk | Indie Rock | Electronica
If you had to define modern society in one word, “Growth” would be a fair shout. More than at any other time in our history the world revolves around pushing for constant unsustainable growth in so many facets of our day to day life. Everything has to be bigger and better, more profitable, more extravagant, than what came before. Over, and over, and over again. It’s a process that will only lead to disappointment, sooner or later you have to hit breaking point, but nevertheless this ideal manages to seep under our skin all the same. It’s something that can even be applied to the shifting attitudes towards music; these days people expect, or at least hope deep down, that every new release will see an act they love kick things up a notch. In reality it’s very rare to come across a band who manage to get better and better with each album, and for those seldom few that pull it off their winning streak is usually short-lived.
I’m certainly guilty of viewing Bear’s Den in that light, having touted them in the past as one of those rare bands who manage to up their game every time. Not without good reason mind: from the banjo tinged folk of their debut Islands, to the spellbinding retro synths of Red Earth & Pouring Rain, to the perfectly polished hooks and triumphant crescendos found on So That You Might Hear Me, every subsequent release has build upon what came before.
Hence why it’s so sad to say that Blue Hours feels like the album to break their streak by offering diminishing returns. With the new record’s greater emphasis on electronic elements, it definitely feels like something was lost somewhere along the way. On tracks like ‘Frightened Whispers’ you get the broad outline of a great Bear’s Den song, but in building it up with cold clinical beats and arpeggios rather than acoustic folk or lush synths it loses a lot of character and personality. Ultimately it somehow feels much less inviting than it should, even with the saving grace of the warm sax tones in the latter half. Much the same issues plague the album’s last three tracks, alongside also having comparatively sparse and repetitive arrangements. The end result is a record that fizzles out far too soon and struggles to keep my interest for the duration.
But just because Blue Hours doesn’t meet the mark to constitute “growth”, doesn’t mean it can’t still play host to some moments of utter brilliance. While it may end with a whimper, it starts with a bang. Opening number ‘New Ways’ builds up beautifully layer by layer with Bruce Hornsby-esque piano tones and shuddering drum fills, while the title track boasts an understated groove and a driving beat that propels one of the record’s most compelling hooks. The synth heavy ‘Gratitude’ boasts great lines like “A pen can feel so heavy, With ink enough for a violent flood, Breaching the levee“, and lead single ‘Spiders’ sees the band at their darkest and most driven. Yet it’s the haunting emotional heart of the record, ‘Shadows’, that leaves the deepest impression. A moving statement of solidarity in the face of a loved one’s struggles with mental illness, it’s quite possibly their most arresting work to date. With the elegant gossamer strings, its compassionate pleas of “I want you and all of the shadows that walk beside you“, and signature emotionally charged climax, it makes for a potent swirling cocktail of love and sorrow.
A constant climb to greater heights is likely nothing more than a pipe dream, but listening to Blue Hours I’m reminded of a different metric by which to define a great act: consistency. The fact that the band still manage to offer such spellbinding highs even on the record that I connected with the least is a testament to their talents. In the grand scheme of things, no matter how it compares to their past output, you will not leave a Bear’s Den record disappointed.